"I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo," Bill Watterson is rumored to have told his publisher. Indeed. But what of the mythical history of this meme? Finally, someone has a few answers.
Phil Edwards isn't the first guy to plumb America's golden stream of folklore for insights into the peeing-Calvin meme, but he's certainly the most intrepid. His new online account of the decal trend offers us some tantalizing background. Here are the vital details:
1. The image is widely believed to come from a "Calvin and Hobbes" comic that Watterson published June 5, 1988.
Needless to say, Calvin was not taking a leak.
[Update: Edwards originally typo'd the date of the strip as 1998, which led me to write the following paragraph in the original post. He's since corrected the record in the comments below, but we'll keep the graf for transparency's sake.]
Of course, there are problems with the timeline here: The earliest printed reports of a pissing Calvin come to us in 1995, so perhaps this strip was a reprint of an earlier comic, or a similar likeness appeared in papers much earlier. (Also, as Edwards points out in his post and I added in the comments below, Watterson retired from making original strips at the end of 1995, so the comic cited here is almost certainly a rerun.)
2. The meme started in Florida, probably. Blame college football.
As evidence, Edwards cites the earliest printed report he could find: A November 1995 story by longtime Tampa Bay Times writer Tom Zucco describing "a 25-foot motor home with a sign showing Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes urinating on the letters FSU." Speaking as a Florida high schooler at the time, whose classmates wore garish pro-Seminoles shirts screaming "You're Ugly... And Your Momma Dresses You in Orange and Blue," I can attest to the likelihood that denizens of the Florida-Florida State rivalry were early Calvin-pee adopters.
3. Without NASCAR, who knows?
There is, of course, something undeniably and exaggeratedly masculine about an impish prepubescent boy peeing on things. It seems natural, then, that self-conscious advertisers of machismo—say, Dale Jr. fans and Chevy men—might see Calvin as a perfect cultural code through which to communicate their superior musk to beta males and Ford drivers. Edwards says newspaper references to Calvin grew rapidly across the South, often in connection with NASCAR and vehicle brand preferences.
4. In a sense, Bill Watterson could have stopped all this, and made a lot of money to boot.
One of Watterson's admirable—and frustrating—qualities was his steadfast resistance to licensing Calvin and Hobbes' likenesses for merchandise. "Hobbes is a stuffed tiger. ," one Watterson profiler wrote for the Cleveland Scene in 2003. "What fan — kid or adult — wouldn't want one of his or her very own?" But the creator wouldn't hear of it, muttering about integrity-free sellouts in the ranks of professional cartoonists.
The flip side of that equation is that licensed merchandisers, who have a clear financial interest in protecting their licensed images, are the best candidates to pursue and punish copyright violators. Watterson and United Press Syndicate owned the images he drew, it's true; but absent a lot of legal firepower, money, and free time, corralling the Calvin-pee propagators was just too tall an order. As the Scene relates:
"We've contemplated legal action," says Lee Salem, vice president and editor at Universal Press Syndicate, which distributed Calvin and Hobbes. But the cost involved in finding those who make and sell the decals would far exceed what Universal could win in damages. "Bill's as frustrated as we are."...
Just as Watterson was, Mallett is against rampant licensing of characters so that they appear on everything from calendars to underwear. Unlike Watterson, he believes some selective marketing may actually be helpful. "Because now look what we're left with: Calvin pissing on a Ford logo."
5. What about those "praying Calvin" stickers, though?
They exist. Nobody cares.